Margery Kempe

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Patience is more worthy than miracle working

Margery Kempe (née Brunham) (c. 1373 – after 1438) was a married English visionary and mystic of the Catholic Church. She was also the mother of fourteen children. The Book of Margery Kempe, a record of her spiritual life and travels around holy sites in Europe and Asia, written in the third person, is sometimes called the first autobiography in the English language. She was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, whom Margery had met in person and received spiritual guidance from.


The Book of Margery Kempe[edit]

Middle English quotations and chapter numbers are taken from the edition by Lynn Staley (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996); Modern English quotations and page numbers are taken from the translation by W. Butler-Bowdon (New York: Devin-Adair, 1944) and Staley (2001).

  • On a nygth, as this creatur lay in hir bedde wyth hir husbond, sche herd a sownd of melodye so swet and delectable, hir thowt, as sche had ben in paradyse. And therwyth sche styrt owt of hir bedde and seyd, "Alas, that evyr I dede synne, it is ful mery in hevyn."
    • On a night, as this creature lay in her bed with her husband, she heard a sound of melody so sweet and delectable, that she thought she had been in Paradise, and therewith she started out of her bed and said: "Alas, that ever I did sin! It is full merry in Heaven."
    • Ch. 3; p. 5.
  • Pacyens is more worthy than myraclys werkyng.
    • Patience is more worthy than miracle-working.
    • Ch. 51; p. 108.
  • Sche cam beforn the Erchebischop and fel down on hir kneys, the Erchebischop seying ful boystowsly unto hir, "Why wepist thu so, woman?" Sche, answeryng, seyde, "Syr, ye schal welyn sum day that ye had wept as sor as I."
    • She came before the Archbishop and fell down on her knees, the Archbishop saying full boisterously unto her: "Why weepest thou, woman?" She, answering, said: "Sir, ye shall wish some day that ye had wept as sore as I."
    • Ch. 52; p. 112.
  • Sometimes she felt sweet smells with her nose; it was sweeter, she thought, than ever was any sweet earthly thing that she smelled before…Sometimes she heard with her bodily ears such sounds and melodies that she might not well hear what a man said to her in that time unless he spoke the louder. These sounds and melodies had she heard nearly every day for the term of twenty-five years…She saw with her bodily eye many white things flying all about her on every side, as thick in a manner as motes in the sun; they were right delicate and comfortable, and the brighter that the sun shone …Also our Lord gave her another token, which endured about sixteen years, and it increased ever more and more, and that was a flame of fire wonderfully hot and delectable and right comfortable, not wasting but ever increasing of flame, for, though the weather was never so cold, she felt the heat burning in her breast and at her heart, and verily as a man should feel the material fire if he put his hand or his finger therein
    • (Staley, 2001: 64-5).

Quotes about Margery[edit]

  • As an intimate record of personal religious experience it has few equals. The marks of accuracy, sincerity, and reality are stamped on every page.
    • T. W. Coleman English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century (London: Epworth Press, 1938) p. 155.
  • Margery was more of a religious hysteric than a mystic. But she gives a vibrant account of her life as a woman to whom religion and weeping were as attractive as sex was to the Wife of Bath.
    • Derek Brewer, in Boris Ford (ed.) Medieval Literature: Chaucer and the Alliterative Tradition (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982) p. 35.
  • The Book of Margery Kempe tells the story of one woman’s spiritual journey in Medieval England over a twenty-five year period, describing her quest to establish spiritual authority as a result of her personal conversations with Jesus and God. Whilst the text is written in the third person, it is generally acknowledged to be the first autobiography written in the English language...Kempe’s story relates not only Margery’s struggle to achieve some form of divine spirituality, but also her polarised reception within society. Some, most notably religious authority figures, revered Margery as a holy mystic, whilst others, mainly commoners, rejected and slandered her as a devil worshiper.
    • Alison Torn, Margery Kempe: Madwoman or Mystic [1]
  • Kempe describes, in this extract and elsewhere, what could be construed as classic psychotic symptoms; visions, auditory, olfactory and tactile hallucinations, grandiose delusions, self-neglect (Margery’s penances of fasting, being inadequately clothed), social withdrawal (from her family and friends), and feelings of passivity and control. Yet it does not feel like madness. Why not? What Kempe describes to us is a truly embodied spiritual experience. Kempe has no doubt about this, and it is this unshakeable belief that communicates itself down the centuries through the text...the question remains as to how Kempe manages to convey the phenomenological intensity of Margery’s experience twenty or more years after the event? First, Kempe is an expert storyteller, and it is likely that she retold such narratives as discussed here on many occasions to many people, clergy and fellow pilgrims, through oral testimony and public performance. Second, central to the orthodox liturgy, is the conception that devotional words uttered are expressed through the senses. Extreme emotion which, in modern times, is viewed as a sign of mental instability, was a fundamental feature of spirituality, conveying both the seriousness and truth of the religious experience...With this knowledge, when we return to Kempe’s text, we can listen to Margery’s voice within a framework more akin to medieval England than the twentieth century West. Margery’s sensory experiences are not without cultural and historical provenance, rather she draws upon a range of mystical sources grounded in religious and cultural traditions known throughout medieval Europe. Kempe’s embodied descriptions cease to be tactile or olfactory hallucinations or grandiose ideas (marriage to God), but become experiences that result from spiritual passion. As Porter argues “it would serve no purpose to label such exercise of spiritual discipline as a psychiatric disorder” (Porter, 1988: 44). As argued earlier, religiosity was sanity, whereas madness amounted to a refusal to accept the truth that was God. Furthermore, Margery’s experiences are intelligible not only in terms of religious traditions, but also in her terms of her career; Kempe construes Margery as a holy mystic
    • Alison Torn, Margery Kempe: Madwoman or Mystic [2], p. 86.
  • Kempe was psychotic for much of her adult life...Kempe continued to have psychotic symptoms throughout the remainder of her life...[her] account provides the modern reader with a unique opportunity to hear the voice of a woman with serious mental illness who lived 600 years ago
    • Marlys Craun, Personal Accounts: The Story of Margery Kempe (2005: 656).
  • Given this mixture of affective and schizophrenic features a modern psychiatric diagnosis for Margery Kempe would most likely be ‘schizoaffective psychosis’, precipitated in the first instance by childbirth
    • Claridge, G., Pryor, R. & Watkins, G. (1990), Sounds from the Bell Jar: Ten Psychotic Authors (1990: 69).
  • We also know that Julian too received frequent visitors, as is attested by the autobiography of another fervent Christian of her time, Margery Kempe, who went to Norwich in 1413 to receive advice on her spiritual life
    • Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 1st December 2010 [3].

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